If Rosie the Riveter were a worker today, she’d be wearing scrubs instead of denim coveralls. In the 1940s, factories dominated the U.S. economy, and Rosie the Riveter came to embody working women’s fight for equality and economic empowerment. Now, in the same Rust Belt cities where manufacturing once reigned, hospitals rank as the top employers. Moreover, workers in the predominantly female hospital service workforce are leading today’s fight for good jobs and economic justice.
A recent report by the National Employment Law Project shows 70 percent of service workers at hospitals are paid less than $15 an hour, even as profits soar and jobs grow. In 11 states across the Midwest, hospital employment jumped 18 percent between 2001 and 2015 to nearly 1.5 million jobs. And it’s women, who make up 68 percent of the hospital workforce, that fill the ranks of these health systems.
The movement isn’t just about winning raises. Working Americans in the fight for $15 know the key to ensuring that hospital jobs are good jobs is the ability of hospital workers to join together in a union to negotiate better wages and benefits. In cities like New York where hospital workers have a union, they make good middle-class wages, have excellent health insurance and the opportunity to retire with dignity. In cities where hospitals have fought against their employees who want to stick together in a union, hospital jobs are not good jobs.
Gary Hilliard, for example, works at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Queens, New York, where he has done a number of important jobs, including transporting patients, housekeeping and working in the morgue. As a member of the local hospital workers union, he makes $23.65 an hour, plus health care benefits, a pension and job security. Quwanasia Ruffin does the same kind of work as Gary, but she works at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit, where there is no union. She is paid only $9.08 an hour, can’t afford health care benefits, has no pension, no job security and no support to raise her young son.
If hospital workers in cities like Detroit get the chance to unite without interference from their employer, they can win the same kind of improvements that Gary has won in New York. Good hospital jobs are possible all across America, if politicians stand up for — and employers respect — working people’s rights to stand together in unions without the kind of intimidation and fear mongering that occurred when autoworkers tried to unite at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., earlier this summer.
Americans are fed up with politicians who have rigged the rules of our economy to favor big corporations and billionaires who take advantage of working people. To unrig the rules, working people need permanent, powerful organizations that give them a strong voice in the decisions that affect their families. This Labor Day, the most effective way for politicians to help fix the rigged economic system and rebuild the middle class in America is to support the Rosie the Riveters of 2017: the brave women who are leading the campaign to turn hospital jobs into good union jobs.
Mary Kay Henry is president of Service Employees International Union, a labor organization of two million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.